Primarily a painter, Flo Brook’s work spans collage, drawing and sculpture. Through this myriad of mediums, Flo represents numerous thoughts, experiences and themes that are autobiographical but also open to all. “Broadly speaking they’re about family (whether blood, chosen, queer) community (or the absence of) and ‘growing up’, a sort of queer coming-of-age story,” the artist tells It’s Nice That.
As a result Flo’s work is full of poignant portraits. Each is made with such care that even if you don’t know the subject painted, you’ll stare for a long time as if you know them well. This ability to represent an honest connection is due to the work additionally exploring “a lot of significant changes going on for me a that time,” he explains. “Starting hormone transition (testosterone injections which initiate a secondary puberty/and simultaneously a menopause), moving down to Cornwall on a kind of self-imposed exile, and reconciling myself with all these hefty social, psychological and physical changes, while living, working and caring for my parents.”
Representing these feelings in such a direct artistic way is brave, but hasn’t come always come easily to Flo. Creativity has always been part of his family, “my dad went to Goldsmiths and studied textiles… my mum has a background in nursing but was a pottery teacher, and has always made clothes, quilts, and has various projects on the go,” he explains. But it wasn’t until he graduated from The Ruskin School at Oxford University that Flo found an artistic voice to speak.
“After I graduated I felt — inevitably — pretty lost like most of my peers and spent the next couple of years trying to work out what I wanted to say with the work I was making,” he explains. “Essentially, I was scared of my own voice, or saying ‘too much’, because I wanted the work to talk about liminality, physicality and identity. They’re all ideas that have so much to do with who I am, and my experience as a transgender and queer person.”
Flo, quite understandably, had a large amount of hesitation around making this the focus of his work. Thankfully he accepted “that painting could be a platform to figure all this out,” he says. “To bend, formulate and deconstruct a shifting dialogue between ideas, and that I could just be myself with it.”
To display this mix of emotions visually the artist’s process begins with drawing, documenting “a lot from the things around me,” he explains. “I usually see something, an action or exchange, which I think could express an idea quite well.” From there, Flo also takes photographs of friends and family, and begins to prep paintings and collages “until it feels like just the ‘right’ amount of friction is in the image”. Once a larger painting begins “it comes together quite quickly and steadily,” he continues. “I think about pace a lot, if I feel anxious and a bit jittery I know it’s probably going well because I’m working quickly. But, sometimes stopping, doing something else for a bit and going back to it helps too. Different elements of painting call for different approaches. What would this bit feel like? Would a hasty gesture work well with something kind of sluggish here? It has to feel like there’s tension and conflict inside it or else it isn’t working.”
More recently, the artist has been busy working on Outskirts, a social practice art project initiated in late 2016 exploring “the intersection between liminality and identity through visual and textural exchanges,” he says. Liminality, Flo explains, “means a transitional state, a space of in-betweenness, and it’s something I think almost everyone can relate with”.
Outskirts places an emphasis on trans and gender “non-conforming narratives,” and is an ongoing collaborative project, partly as a publication published by Makina Books, and a liminal portrait exchange. The publication documents responses to “what does it mean to occupy liminal space today?” and the notion of “permanent liminality,” through poetry, prose, lyrics, illustration, print, photography and more.
The second part, the portrait exchange,“attempts to translate people’s experience of liminality,” and begins with collaboration. Individuals are invited to their own experience through image, text, object and sound, each “enthused with a personal narrative”. The artist then paints the items and feelings shared, cutting them up and “arranging them into a collage portrait, accompanied by a text written by the participant”. The subject then receives a print of the portrait in exchange for sharing their story with Flo. “The idea is that these dialogues will foster connections and create a supportive network in which our own and often isolating experiences are shared, valued and legitimised. I also think it’s important to hear real experiences which are messy, fragile and complicated, and not the trajectory of the dominant trans narrative which is told like a ‘success’ story.”
Outskirts launched earlier this year but will continue to build a supportive network in a touring group exhibition Outskirts — Astigmatism — Acutance, with Richard Phoenix and Robin Christian, each separate title is also a publication published by Makina Books too. The exhibition which “approaches the subject of community by exploring different themes including trans and gender non-conforming identity, disability and friendship,” is currently on display at Exeter Phoenix until 18 November, before moving to the DIY Space for London from 4 – 11 December. The group are also keen to extend the exhibition’s tour, particularly in spaces that are accessible and may not have held exhibitions before, more information is available here.
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